Business park dreams, but problematic reality

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CASCADE - When the Army cleared out of Fort Ritchie in 1998, local officials envisioned a high-tech business park springing up in its place and restoring hundreds of well-paying jobs to these remote mountains in Western Maryland.

But six years later, the former base looks much as it did when the soldiers left: a ghost town of darkened buildings, rutted roads and drooping weeds.

To be sure, base closures are never tidy. Environmental ills, complex regulations and quarrels among developers, local officials and the military often combine to stall their rebirth.

But the effort to turn Fort Ritchie into "Lakeside Corporate Center" has weathered what officials say is a remarkable streak of misfortune: an unexpected courtroom defeat last year, a surprise discovery of buried explosives near homes, and a clash among Maryland Congress members that has the base's only big tenant threatening to leave.

Then, this fall, when things looked like they couldn't get any worse, nearly half the board overseeing the redevelopment effort abruptly resigned.

"It's been a painful year in a lot of ways," says Richard Rook, executive director of PenMar Development Corp., chartered by the General Assembly in 1997 to redevelop the base.

PenMar itself has taken a beating in the newspapers around here. Critics have accused it of timidity, lackadaisical marketing and a tendency to get mired in parochial power struggles.

One Washington County official recently suggested scuttling PenMar and returning the base - which he called a "monster that's becoming uncontrollable" - to the federal government.

PenMar officials concede they have little to show for the last six years. But they insist they are nearing a breakthrough.

They say that the mass defections from its board have made way for new leaders with fresh ideas. They say they are sharpening their sales pitch to prospective tenants. And they say they are close to striking a deal with a major developer.

PenMar is also retreating from what one of its leaders calls its "mantra": a refusal to repair the ailing roads, phone system and power lines until the Army finishes its environmental cleanup and hands over the entire 592-acre base.

"We need to be thinking of doing something different," says the official, Ronald Z. Sulchek, the board chairman since November.

Rental income has swollen PenMar's cash assets to $4 million. Sulchek says PenMar should have spent it long ago to shore up infrastructure and make the grounds more inviting to would-be tenants.

But others, while applauding PenMar's new direction, are skeptical about prospects for the base's rebirth. They worry that this tiny village, in the Catoctin Mountains hard by the Appalachian Trail and the Pennsylvania state line, is simply too far from the interstates to draw a real replacement for the Army. Cascade has a hard enough time as it is, they say, getting the ear of political leaders in the county seat.

"Some of us have a saying up here: 'So close to God, but so far from Hagerstown,'" says Karl H. Weissenbach, head of the Cascade Committee, a neighborhood group that fought plans to shut the local elementary school after the base closure. "There is a perception of benign neglect."

Fort Ritchie opened in 1926 as a training camp for the Maryland National Guard, taking its name from then-Gov. Albert C. Ritchie. The Army took over during World War II and trained thousands of soldiers in counter-intelligence. The base later evolved into a high-tech communications post.

It was the economic heart of Cascade, a one-time summer retreat for the rich 75 miles northwest of Baltimore that now has a mostly blue-collar population of 1,400.

In 1995, the Department of Defense put Fort Ritchie on a list of bases that had outlived their usefulness. Three years later, 1,200 Army employees left town. Officials estimated that 33 businesses in and around Cascade suffered, shedding half of their 700 workers.

Then the power struggles started.

Army officials say they were ready - eager, even - to give Fort Ritchie to PenMar as early as 1998. But Washington County commissioners, who appoint PenMar's board, wanted the Army to finish its cleanup first.

"Their stated goal was not to take on any Army liability," recalls William M. Spigler, the Army's transition coordinator for the base. "They had fears. They were timid."

PenMar officials, for their part, say the Army has dragged its feet on the cleanup.

The national round of base closures that included Fort Ritchie freed 135,123 acres of Army land for reuse. About 91 percent is now in new hands, either through long-term leases or sale, according to the Pentagon.

"PenMar still does not own one parcel of land here," says Rook. It leases just a sliver.

The base's largest tenant, the International Masonry Institute, a union-affiliated training group that employs 33 people, set up shop in 1997. Since then, three other companies, all much smaller, have moved in. About 620,000 square feet of building space - with room to build 1.2 million more - stand empty.

Dreams of a bustling Lakeside Corporate Center exist only in the pages of a glossy brochure.

In 2001, Army crews found buried grenades, mortar shells and a bazooka rocket where they had never expected them: near former soldier townhouses that PenMar had already rented to about 100 families.

More than two years later, the Army is still waiting to relocate the families and begin the cleanup. "Army paperwork," Spigler explains.

A more serious snag arose last February. A federal appeals court sided with Role Models America Inc., a boot camp-style program for troubled youth that PenMar had evicted for not paying rent.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the government failed to advertise the availability of free land at Fort Ritchie to groups such as Role Models. The court halted the transfer of the base to PenMar, triggering a yearlong re-application that could jeopardize PenMar's control over the fort.

The sudden resignations this fall of seven of its 15 board members followed bitter disputes over the base's future and the pace of progress. The old guard wanted to hold out for tenants with the stature of, say, Microsoft Corp. Newcomers said it was time for a modest vision more in step with community needs.

Some local officials cheered and others winced in November when PenMar leased the fort's former gym to a youth sports league.

PenMar officials say they have come to recognize the limits of their expertise. They are trying now to clinch a master development deal with Lerner Enterprises, the North Bethesda firm behind such projects as Dulles Town Center and Annapolis Harbour Center malls.

Lerner official Kevin B. Rogers says that Cascade's scenic locale makes a perfect setting for professional training centers, magnet schools and a college annex. But Lerner's talks with PenMar are now in their 15th month. Rogers says he has tried without much success to get PenMar to share his "sense of urgency."

Meanwhile, the International Masonry Institute, which trains dozens of bricklayers and stone workers at its warehouse here each year and has spent $2 million on its grounds, is thinking about leaving.

Last year, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a western Maryland Republican, helped sink legislation introduced in the Senate by Democrats Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes to speed the institute's purchase of land it now leases. A Bartlett spokeswoman told a local newspaper in November that the congressman was concerned about the masonry group's ability to deliver its promised 200 jobs.

But another spokeswoman, Lisa Wright, told The Sun recently that Bartlett withheld support "precisely and exactly and exclusively" at the behest of PenMar and the county commissioners, who wanted to take the fort in its entirety rather than in pieces.

Every few months, Bartlett leads another tour of the base for federal officials. He has made no secret of his desire to lure a federal agency there.

But the tussle on Capitol Hill was the last straw for Joan B. Calambokidis, president of the Annapolis-based masonry institute. "If we knew then what we know now," she says, "this would not be a place we would select."

John C. Munson, a Washington County commissioner, told the Hagerstown Herald-Mail in the fall that Fort Ritchie was "a monster that's becoming uncontrollable."

But four months later, with new PenMar board members in place and signs of a possible deal with Lerner, Munson has softened his tone.

"I think we need to give them another chance," Munson says.

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